EE could launch the UK's first 5G network in 2019

EE is refarming 3G spectrum for 4G in a bid to lay the foundation for a launch of 5G mobile services in 2019.

The BT-owned operator will use 2100MHz bandwidth to boost 4G signals at 500 mobile towers located in the busiest parts of EE’s network, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Exeter, Hull, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast.

The additional band will enable EE to offer five band carrier aggregation (5CA), which involves the use of different spectrum to improve speeds and capacity, making it the only UK operator able to do so. 5CA makes it possible to achieve the headline speeds promised by the modems in recent and upcoming flagship smartphones.

EE 5G launch

The first commercial 5G networks will borrow certain elements, such as the core network, from LTE but will make use of new radio technologies that allow for significantly faster speeds. The sites that EE plans to upgrade with 2100MHz will be its first 5G-enabled locations.

The switchover has been enabled by declining use of EE’s 3G network, caused by the expansion of 4G coverage and the rollout of Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE). More calls are now made on 4G and than 3G, while Voice-over-Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) technology has improved reliability.

“Our customers want a fast and reliable 4G connection, and that’s what we’re working to give them,” said EE CEO Marc Allera. “We are using the investment we made in 3G spectrum nearly 15 years ago to give customers today a great experience with the latest smartphones on 4G, and build our foundation for 5G in 2019. We’re constantly evolving, and the customer experience of 5G will be dictated by the quality of the 4G network underneath.”

EE has previously stated a possible 2019 launch window for 5G and has held trials in London’s Tech City and Wembley Stadium using the 3.4GHz spectrum it won at the Ofcom spectrum auction earlier this year.

It had been thought that the UK wouldn’t have a 4G service until 2020, but BT is keen to be the first to market as part of its converged network strategy.

EE the first UK operator to launch 4G in 2012 having received permission from the regulator to re-use 1800MHz airwaves that previously powered Orange and T-Mobile’s 3G networks.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.